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Breakroom Book Review: The Biggest Bluff

Have you ever felt the desire to start completely fresh? To become a verified novice in a new-to-you field? Maria Konnikova did. In her breakout book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Konnikova, a Soviet-Russia born, Ivy-league trained psychologist and writer, tells the story of how she decided to leave academia to try her hand at poker and better understand the relationship between luck (or variance as she calls it) and skill.

Konnikova’s work nicely falls into the category of “non-business books that directly apply to business,” which is a favorite genre here at SLKone. The Biggest Bluff is a story through which Konnikova uses her journey from academia to professional poker as a way to illustrate the ways that psychological phenomena and biases affect us all. This rhetorical strategy is similar to strategies employed by other notable authors including Malcolm Gladwell, Shery Sandberg, and Peter Drucker.

While we encourage that you read the book, here are some key takeaways:

The truth of probabilities – The reader is introduced early in the text to the concept of probability, or, more accurately, the misconception of probability. People generally associate high probability with certainty. For instance, a 99% chance is often interpreted as a certainty. However, a 99% chance only truly means that something will not happen once out of every 100 potential occurrences. In other words, the only guarantee is that low probability events will unquestionably occur given enough opportunities to do so. This is also known as Murphy’s Law.

Probabilities do not apply in the short-term – Probabilities are calculated over the long-term. That means that there can be a “run” of events that seem to defy probability, such as rolling 7s on a pair of dice ten times in a row. A good example is a series of coin tosses. Let’s say we are given 100 chances to flip a coin. The first 99 flips come out as “heads”. What are the odds that the 100th coin flip will be “heads?” Some onlookers would say heads are on a “hot streak” while others might say that tails is “due.” But the truth is that the 100th coin flip’s outcome is still a 50/50 chance. Neither heads nor tails has an innate advantage. We know this to be true, yet we often disregard this logic in the heat of the moment. This is also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy.

Check your emotions at the door – Konnikova devotes an entire chapter to the introduction and examination of the concept of “tilt” in poker and in life. Concisely, tilt is the invasion of our human emotion into our attempts to use a rational decision-making process. It is important to know what tilts us. For instance, Konnikova was a woman in a man’s world (only 6% of live tournament poker players are female according to The Global Poker Index). During her time playing professional poker, Konnikova often faced male opponents who mentioned the lack of women in the field, and other gender-based commentary, in a manner that could be described as “heckling.” She recognized that these occurrences represented a “tilt” for her and worked to avoid the emotion entering her rational gameplay strategy. This is called Tilt.

So, what is the biggest bluff of all? According to Konnikova, “That skill can ever be enough. That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up. We don’t know, we can’t ever know, if we’ll manage or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.”